10 Ways What You Smell Can Change Behavior and Perceptions

Smell affects how you see the world Your sense of smell is probably the sense that you most take for granted. In fact, in a survey of people ages 16 to 30, more than half of them (53%) said they would rather give up their sense of smell than their laptop or mobile phone.

Although the sense of smell is highly important in some indigenous cultures, it has taken a back seat to vision ever since the Enlightenment. During the Enlightenment in Europe, rational thought was considered to be humankind’s highest expression and smell was relegated to a lower, more animal part of the human experience. This attitude has persisted in Western culture ever since.

What you may not know, however, is that what you smell can profoundly affect your perceptions and behavior even if you are not consciously aware of the smell. Smell is processed in the limbic system of the brain, which is the seat of our emotions and associative learning. The bottom line is that it goes directly into our subconscious mind and we react before our brain is able to think about it.

  1. Spatial Perception

Depending on what kind of smell there is in the air, you may feel as if the room you are in is smaller or bigger. Scents that are considered “cool” such as the smell of cucumber make you feel like the room is bigger. On the other hand, “warm” scents such as barbeque make you feel like the room is smaller.

You can manipulate the spatial perception of your guests using a scent diffuser with either a warm or cool fragrance. Party planners can use this trick to create a more intimate atmosphere where guests feel that the event is more crowded. Other places that are, in fact, crowded can make people feel less claustrophobic and more calm by dispersing a cool fragrance.

  1. Cleanliness

Is your mother or, even worse, your mother-in-law, coming for a visit? Fool their senses by diffusing a lemon fragrance. Since many cleaners have a lemon scent, we unconsciously associate that smell with cleaning products, and therefore with cleanliness itself.

In one study, a citrus scent was present in the room when people were asked whether a series of letters on a computer screen contained a word. Some of the words were cleaning-related and others were not. When the scent was present, people reacted more quickly to the cleaning-related words and chose them more often than the other words. None of the participants, whether they were aware of the scent or not, thought that the scent influenced their behavior at all, although the data shows that it did.

  1. Attractiveness

People going out on dates frequently will spritz a little perfume or cologne on before heading out the door. But does it make a difference?

Science says yes. Subjects were asked to rate the attractiveness of people in photographs. Some of the time, they did this task when there was a pleasant smell in the room and other times with no added smell. In the fragrance conditions, they rated the people as being more attractive than in the unscented conditions, with a caveat. If a person in a photo was extremely attractive or extremely unattractive, the fragrance made no difference. It only influenced choices in the middle range of attractiveness, so that’s good news for most of us.

  1. Your Mood

Fragrances can have a significant effect on people’s mood. When you smell a pleasant fragrance, it actually lights up portions of the left part of your brain where positive emotions are processed. In addition, a scent can give you a good feeling when it is associated with some positive experience or memory. That’s why real estate agents sometimes bake cookies in a house they are showing. They are hoping that the positive “homey” feelings of visitors will lead to a sale.

  1. Efficacy of a Product

You may think that you are judging how well a product works solely on its merits, but if there is fragrance involved, your judgment may be clouded. In a test of shampoos, consumers were asked to rate the performance of different formulations of shampoo. One shampoo was rated last. When they changed the fragrance (and nothing else), consumers said that it was easier to rinse out, foamed up more and made hair shinier.

  1. Quality of a Product or Service

Just like how your ideas of whether a product works well can be influenced by scent, your evaluation of the quality of a product can also be nudged by the presence of a fragrance. Back in the 1930’s, a company sold silk stockings door to door. Apparently, back then, stockings had a mildly unpleasant smell. A researcher did an experiment where some of the stockings were given an orange fragrance. When women were asked to evaluate the quality of the stockings, they consistently rated the scented ones as higher quality even though they were exactly the same.

In another study, a big box home store in Germany, similar to Home Depot, diffused a freshly-cut grass fragrance in their lawn and garden department. When asked about the quality of the sales staff, customers rated them as more helpful and more knowledgeable when the department was scented than when there was no scent.

  1. The Price You’re Willing to Pay

It just makes sense that if you think that something is a higher quality, you will be willing to pay more for it. This theory was borne out in an experiment where two identical pop up stores for Nike sneakers were set up, one of which was scented. Participants were asked how much they were willing to pay for the sneakers. In the scented store, consumers were willing to pay 10% more for the same item.

  1. What You Remember

As mentioned before, scent is processed in the limbic system, the pre-conscious part of the brain that is the center of our emotions and associative learning. So it should come as no surprise that smells can be extremely powerful triggers of memories. When we have an experience that is associated with a particular smell, especially when that experience has emotional impact, smelling that same fragrance years later can bring the memory to the forefront.

Fragrance has also been shown to be an effective study aid. Students who were exposed to academic information in the presence of a particular fragrance did better on tests when re-exposed to the fragrance during testing than when no fragrance was introduced.

These associations, whether positive or negative, can influence our scent preferences. For example, a woman may hate the smell of roses because when she was a child, there were a lot of roses at her grandmother’s funeral. Another person may love the smell of gasoline because it recalls cutting the lawn with his father, a happy memory.

  1. How Well You Think

Certain fragrances have been shown to improve human performance in different tasks. For example, when a lemon scent was used in a Japanese company, clerical errors were reduced by 54%.

In folklore, rosemary is the symbol of memory, and science has shown that there may be a good reason for that. One of the main components of rosemary essential oil actually helps people do mental math quicker and with fewer mistakes.  Some doctors are now using essential oils to treat patients with Alzheimer’s disease.

  1. What You Taste

Both your sense of smell and your sense of taste are part of your chemical sensing system and they are closely related. Think back to the last time you had a stuffy nose. Your food probably was a bit less tasty than normal. In fact, what we experience as flavor is actually a combination of taste and smell.

The throat and the nasal cavity are connected. When you chew food, the smell of the food goes up to the nasal cavity where it is processed by the olfactory cells and sent up to the olfactory bulb in the brain. Then, information from the olfactory bulb is combined with the information from the gustatory cortex, which processes taste, to produce our perception of flavor.

Contact your Air Esscentials rep to find out how you can strategically use scent to influence your customers.